August 6, 2012

Role Reversal: 2010 vs 2012

Prior to the 2010 season kicking off, there was much optimism surrounding the Black Knights' football program and the possibly of what the season could be for Army..

It was the second season under newly hired head coach Rich Ellerson. The players appeared to have bought into the mentors' offense and defense philosophy, as well as Ellerson ensuring that if you wore the Black & Gold of Army, on Saturday, you were also a West Point Cadet in every sense of the word.

Even with the team adopting and embracing the aforementioned ideas, it was an interesting marriage if you will, especially when you considered the makeup of the squad.

The 2010 team was senior heavy when it came to their starting 11 on defense, especially the core of this shut down crew who demonstrated how effective the Flex "D" could operate.

"We had the chance to buy into Coach Ellerson's way of doing things," shared former defensive tackle and current Lt. Lieutenant, Mike Gann, who is located in Hawaii with the 127 Infantry - 2nd Brigade Combat Team 25th Infantry Division. "Just simple things like going to practice knowing what we had to do everyday and what we had to accomplish .... we kind of had the flow of things. That started from spring all the way through. We already knew how coach wanted to run his practice, we knew how we were going to prepare for games and was key to winning, the preparation piece."

The Seniors

Lead by captain and middle linebacker Steve Anderson and Army's All-Time sack leader in defensive end, Josh McNary. The other seniors included mainstay defensive tackle Mike Gann, strong safety Donnie Dixon and Mr. INT himself, Donovan Travis at free safety. You then had cornerback Richard King and not to be forgotten are backups like contributing linebacker Kingsley Ehie, defensive lineman, Carson Homme,

Then you add in seasoned juniors in future captains/linebackers, Steve Erzinger and Andrew Rodriguez ... where combined, the expectations were high.

Needless to say, this was the core of the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl Championship team.

"There was no doubt in our minds going into camp that were going to be able to accomplish something special," adds Gann. "We didn't even think were going to lose a game. Being able to come through that bowl game (vs. SMU), the experience was great for everyone. That was one of our goals and we just real confident in ourselves and our abilities. When we were out there, we felt like we were one unit because he knew each other and had been playing with each other for a long time.

"Like I hit on before, the way we prepared was so precise where we didn't get bogged down on little stuff. We knew where to go, we knew exactly what Coach Ellerson wanted out of the practice and that really prepared us for the games."

Now, looking at the 2012 team, there are some similarities that have Army fans both excited and optimistic ... albeit, the roles may now be reversed compared to the 2010 team. This year's squad appears to have the group with more game experience, depth and talent versus the more youth defense.

The 2012 Offense

However, offensive coordinator Ian Shields was quick to point out that although there are similarities between the maturity level of the 2010 defensive compared to the 2012 offense, he feels that there are still some significant gaps to be filled offensively. "We do have some returning experience, but allow me to add that we lost Matt Villanti, we lost both starting offensive tackles, actually three who played the majority of the snaps were Mike McDermott, Brad Kelly and Robert Kava, along with losing both starting receivers in Davyd Brooks and Austin Barr," states Shields, who is optimistic, but yet cautiously so. "The reality is that we have six returning starters on offense."
Actually, the fact of the matter it that there are more returning starters on defense than on offense. Players like Zach Watts is among the preseason candidates for the Lott IMPACT Trophy honoring the nation's top defensive player with an emphasis on off-the-field characteristics.So we don't want the fact to get in the way of a good time. And then you have linebacker Geoffery Bacon who had an outstanding first year of Army football, where he was 3rd on the team in tackles.

And as Shields pointed out, there gaps that need to be filled offensively, but this is also a team where the core bunch of players return, who lead the nation in rushing with 346 yards per game and 8th in the nation in time of possession.

Here are just a few ...

Trent Steelman, is a four-year starter at quarterback who rushed for 645 yards although he missed 3 games in 2011and who is on the Davey O'Brien Award Watch List.
Raymond Maples, the junior slotback rushed for 1,066 yards and is a candidate for the Doak Walker Award, which is presented to the nation's top running back,
Larry Dixon, who is only a sophomore, rushed 542 yards from his fullback spot and many believe we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg relative to his talents.
Ryan Powis is at center, where the sophomore is on Rimington Trophy Watch List, an honor given annually to the top center in the country.
Frank Allen at right guard is a four year starter and the mainstay of the offensive line.
Malcolm Brown is Mr. Dependable and rushed for 572 yards although he was not 100% healthy throughout the entire 2011 campaign.

"Offensively, there are a lot of guys touching the ball," says Shields. "When you have a four-year starter at quarterback in Trent, with Maples and Dixon has game experience now, you have Malcolm Brown and we are looking to see if Hassin can bounce back to 2010 form."

If there is an achilles heal for this team, which manifested itself in 2011, it would be "turnovers". The team lead the nation in fumbles, but to their credit if there is such a thing in the fumble category... the Black Knights lost 26 turnovers, which is way to many. But ironically that ranked 86th nationally (out 122 schools); Teams that turned it over as much or more than Army were Air Force (26), BYU, South Carolina (27), Rutgers, Vanderbilt (28) and Notre Dame, Oklahoma (29). Those are relatively good teams with winning records and/or solid programs that turned it over more than Army.

Even with that, the Black Knights must get better in the turnover category, but also on the flip side where the defense only took it away 17 times, which was 95th in the country and that has to change as well.

Although technically there are only 6 returning starters on offensive, Shields noted that there are plenty of guys that received significant game experience .... some who will be pushing for starter spots or will be solidifying the depth chart.

"We have some guys that have played when you look at Whitaker, Jebb, and MoMo (Kime), who started center in the first game of 2011, but was injured and who has the ability to play both center and tackle," declares the Army OC. "Some of the guys have been out there, but not on a consistent basis where you can consider them a returning starter."

There is no question that we like our group of running backs, now we need to get through training camp and see how it all sorts out. But there is some quality depth there and some good players. There's a lot of wear and tear that goes through that position so we the depth quite frankly.

And at running back spot, Shields is hoping that some of that newly tapped talent will not only push for a starting role opposite Maples, but depth and also much needed speed and elusiveness. "Baggett (Terry) and Stephen Fraser offer up a change of pace as runners who have legitimate speed as witnessed on Fraser's breakaway run against Rutgers last season and Baggett is in the same mold," says Shields. "Don't be surprise to see incoming freshman Zach Watts Marcus Polin add a dimension of speed and some elusiveness to the backfield and Malcolm (Brown) has solid speed."

But to compensate for not having a true blazer, Shields offered up these thoughts. "Part of the deal is that we need to block better on the perimeter and some of those bigger runs will happen.

If there is one area of concern offensively, it would have to be at wide receiver. Yes, there is talent at wide receiver, but it is unproven talent at this stage of game and the coaching staff is hoping that this group will continue to mature, along with picking up where they left off this spring.

Probably the most athletic and the player with the solid upside is sophomore Chevaughn Lawrence. "He does have the potential and he made some nice plays this spring ... he really progressed nicely," adds Shields. "We are waiting for him to take that next step because he has the ability to do it."

Along with Lawrence there is Patrick Laird, Anthony Stephens, along with EJ Tucker. "There are two position, so we will see how it sorts out," offers Shields . "Certainly Malcolm Brown is a guy who has been out there ... weather he plays slot or receiver or both, he certainly adds flexibility that way, because he's one of our best football players."

With all of the aforementioned firepower, when it is all said and done in Army's triple option offense, it comes down to the quarterback being able to make the right decision relative to distribution of the ball. Needless to say, this is Trent Steelman's offense, but as was the case in 2010 with the defense, relying on depth to step to play when required is a part of the equation for success. The offense had to do so when Mr. Durability (Steelman) went down for the season (2011) during the game against Vanderbilt, the offense had to rely on senior Max Jenkins, who was not your typical triple option QB and frosh Angel Santiago, who has solid upside and is more the capable backup. But, many observers, including Shields says that there will be serious competition for the spot behind Steelman with the arrival of the freshmen class, particularly USMAPS products, AJ Schurr and Kelvin White.

"I think AJ Schurr and Kelvin (White) ... both those guys have some good tools," confirms Shields.

Our projection is that Schurr will be a player that will come in this summer and will make things very interesting relative to No. 2 on the depth chart. Like Steelman, Schurr has that very competitive - tough as nails mentality. He's a coach's son, he's a student of the game, exceptionally bright and he's very athletic .... he can throw and run.

"You can never have enough good quarterbacks and I think we have some good ones coming in here ... that's a good problem to have," Shields adds.

Optimistic

"We're excited about this group, but you are always excited this time of the year -- all college teams are," says Shields.

"Offensively, there's a good core returning who have played and who at times have played well. This is a new year, a new opportunity and we are excited about what this year brings. I think we are going to have one of the better offenses ... certainly we have the chance to be one of the best that we have had here in awhile, but there is work to be done."

"You know that you have to start fresh and get the fundamentals in place, as well as see how this team bonds here at training camp because that's a big part of it."

If this offense can cut their turnovers in half, there is little doubt in our eyes that the Black & Gold offense will once again be in the top ten in the nation in rushing. But that it all goes according to plan, that could translate to an outstanding won-lost record, bowl eligibility and perhaps finally taking down Navy.

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